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Waiting in the Wings

While some question the selection process for the Loeb Mainstage, more wonder why there isn't another campus theater like it


By the end of the 1998-99 season, the lights will have come up on 12 full-scale productions at the Loeb Mainstage.

Only one-third gave undergraduate casts a chance to shine.

Created as a student theater space, the Loeb has been transformed into an arena for professionals--it has served as the home of the American Repertory Theatre (ART) since 1980--leaving undergraduates waiting in the wings.

The Mainstage is one of the--if not the--most desirable performance spaces on campus, trumping other theaters with "more lights, a better sound system, a bigger stage" and 550 seats, according to Michael P. Davidson '00, president of the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC).

The HRDC board--a group of eight undergraduates elected by their peers--doles out two coveted slots for student productions each semester. This year, eight shows applied for Mainstage space next fall.

HRDC board members say it is difficult to articulate exactly what makes a successful application. There are criteria--but students who have gone through the process often leave wondering why their show was rejected. Some who have submitted proposals in the past say the process is ultimately fair, but others feel more perspectives during show selection would make for a more balanced Mainstage.

Administrators now say they have begun to scrutinize how theater space is allocated on campus, leading some to suggest that the only solution is another theater.

How to Get on Stage

HRDC accepts applications for the Mainstage in December for spring season shows and in April for the fall.

Applicants present a proposal for their show that includes statements from the director and producer, a list of staff, copies of the script and a preliminary budget.

If a show is chosen to run on the Mainstage, the participants will enjoy a guaranteed grant of $5,000 to spend on sets, sound, publicity, props, costumes and miscellaneous expenses. In most other productions on campus, directors and producers can only hope that ticket sales from the show will cover their expenditures, concerns absent from the Mainstage.

"You don't have to worry about budgets and tickets," says Jennie E. Connery '99, former vice president of HRDC and mainstage coordinator. "That can be really liberating."

With the benefits of performing in a large, modern theater and having the comforts of a guaranteed amount of money to work with, it's no mystery why so many shows apply for the Mainstage each semester.

But in granting such prime space, HRDC board members say only a few factors consistently play into their decision-making process, while the vast majority of details about a show do not.

No specific type of shows--musicals, dramas, comedies--is favored, and there is no express requirement on the size of the cast.

But HRDC executives do say they look for experience in directors, producers and designers, as well as the overall vision these leaders have for the show.

It is important, they say, that the director and producer have refined their skills in other campus productions, proving that they are ready to tackle such a large space as the Mainstage.

"Experience plays a huge role," says Jessica K. Jackson '99, former president of HRDC. "How else do we know if they are going to pull off a good show or not?"

The board says they also discuss if the Mainstage could feasibly accommodate the director's plans for the show; many productions are rejected because the board thinks that the concept the director envisions would be impossible to stage.

"We wouldn't want an enormous amount of open flame, for example," Jackson says.

Davidson, Jackson's successor, says the process of choosing shows is an extremely difficult one because the board must evaluate applications that all have particular strengths.

"In general though, we're looking for a strong staff, a good script and a strong vision [for the show]," he says.

While board members say they avoid making artistic evaluations of prospective shows, the board does consider how the two shows of a given season will stand in relation to one another, hoping to put together a balanced marquee.

They steer away from choosing two shows by the same author, or two productions with small casts, or large casts.

"We do like to put up a variety of shows," Davidson says. "We don't want to put up two shows that have eight people, because that would only give eight people a chance to perform [in each show]."

The Powers That Be

Jerry Ruiz '00 applied for the Mainstage this spring with a show that is unlikely to be mistaken for another.

Ruiz's version of "Cyrano de Bergarac" would begin in the 17th century and move forward 100 years each act, ending in the 21st century ("with a bleak, post-apocalyptic thing at the end," Ruiz notes).

Ruiz has acted in about six campus productions and directed two shows at Harvard, one in the Loeb Experimental Theatre and "How the Other Half Loves," which recently closed after a two-weekend run at the Agassiz Theatre.

But despite his work--and what he believes to be an experienced staff on board as well, including costume, set, light and prop designers, a technical director and stage manager--the board rejected "Cyrano."

Although he can't be sure--because the HRDC board does not make their deliberations known--Ruiz says he thinks his show was rejected because of his grandiose plans.

He planned to perform the 40-character show with about 18 to 20 cast members and an elaborate set.

Ruiz says it might have been a financial stretch to fund the production considering his vision, and "the producers seemed close, but we estimated that we could do it."

Ruiz said the HRDC board has replied well to criticism in the past, but he wondered if the selection process sometimes came down to reputations--the board's perceptions of "how easy or how difficult people on the staff are to work with."

"There's eight people deciding the two biggest shows for all of Harvard theater," Ruiz says. "No one else gets a say. There's a possibility of [the board] not being representative."

Daphne D. Adler '99, the co-director of last month's "Perpetual Motion," the first dance show to be granted the Mainstage by HRDC in recent memory, says she does not criticize the individual HRDC board members, but the selection process itself.

"They were very generous to give us the space, and we're so grateful," Alder says. But they are not at all qualified to evaluate the quality of a dance production."

The Plot Thickens

There are plans to change all that. The shows that HRDC chooses for the Mainstage are supposed to be approved by the Standing Committee on Dramatics, newly-chaired by Robert

J. Kiely '60, master of Adams House and Loker professor of English.

Currently, that happens in theory alone.

Kiely has been a member of the committee for roughly 10 years and doesn't remember the group ever rejecting an HRDC decision; the committee simply "rubber stamps" the board's choices, Kiely says.

This year, he received an e-mail message informing him of the two shows the board chose.

"It would be a better system if more people were involved," Kiely says. "The more expertise, the fairer the process."

As the committee's new chair, Kiely says he wants to change the way the system has been operating, better integrating his Faculty team into the process, discussing choices with the HRDC board and dispensing some advice.

"It's important that it is a student decision," Kiely says. "But I'd like to see more consultation with the committee, Faculty and perhaps other students as well."

Adler calls for a structural change to the space selection process--where a more diverse group of student artists, including student leaders from the dance and music organizations, would choose the productions for the Mainstage.

Adler says she would also like to see time slots set aside each year beyond the four traditional Mainstage productions for different types of performances.

"There are talented dancers on campus that are not represented on the Mainstage," she says.

She and her co-director Kiesha M. Minyard had applied for the Mainstage with the same show last year but were rejected.

"We and our staff did have one more year of experience," Minyard says. "But our application wasn't all that different, so we have no way of knowing why we got it this year."

A Delicate Balance

While HRDC board members concede that the process for choosing Mainstage productions is not perfect, they do make efforts to eliminate bias and choose shows fairly.

Any board member who is applying to direct or produce a show for the Mainstage cannot take part in the deliberations.

So when Jessica F. Shapiro '01, the coordinator of the Experimental Theatre and an HRDC board member, applied for the Mainstage slot as producer of "Jesus Christ Superstar," she did not participate in the selection process with the board.

"Superstar" did get the space anyway and will open in the fall.

According to Jackson, the board doesn't take a formal majority-rules vote when choosing a show, but instead picks by consensus, deliberating until all members agree on the two shows.

The consensus method aims at making all board members happy with the final choices.

And despite concerns that the HRDC board doesn't have the expertise to evaluate shows beyond the realm of plays and musicals, they do make an effort to take advantage of board members' past experiences.

Connery says "sometimes there is a tendency to defer to board members who know more about an area...there are several members of the board with a dance background."

To their credit, HRDC's efforts have won support from aspiring directors and producers whose shows were actually rejected from the Mainstage.

Josh Edelman '00 applied for the Mainstage twice with Thorton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth." And twice he was rejected.

Although he says he feels HRDC's method might need to be "tweaked", he also says that "the process is fundamentally sound."

Marisa N. Echeverria '00, who applied for a fall slot with the eight person show, "Arms and the Man," said the application process was a learning experience.

She says she appreciated getting feedback on questions she had about directing her show and that "the board has chosen a number of really great shows."

The Larger Scene

Meanwhile, Dean of Students Archie C. Epps III says that the process could be "more critical," but the issue of shrinking space is key.

From a historical perspective, the Loeb family--which provided the funds for the Loeb Drama Center during the era of Harvard President.

Nathan M. Pusey '28--had undergraduate theater in mind when they pledged their gift, Epps says.

And when the ART approached the University to use the Loeb Center collaboratively, the College hoped this would be an opportunity for students to learn from theater experts.

"I thought we were buying a professional repertory theater that would interact with undergraduates and raise the level of undergraduate performances," Epps says. "That has not worked."

With the ART's inclusion, undergraduates lost space; Epps remembers there were once seven slots for undergraduates on the Mainstage, and today students now command only four.

Meanwhile, in 1970, there were 20 undergraduate productions on campus, according to Epps. This year, there were 60, he says.

Epps fears that with the pending Harvard-Radcliffe merger, undergraduates will no longer have access to Agassiz Theatre in Radcliffe Yard, putting more pressure for students to find alternatives to the Loeb.

"I think what we'll see in the short run is use of improvised space," Epps says. "The use of the Hasty Pudding theater for non-Hasty Pudding events has increased."

Connery says there are probably enough theatrical spaces for shows on campus. However, she warns, "there are probably not enough spaces that are well equipped and well funded."

Epps says "there's talk of locating a new museum and theater space" on the current location of the Mahoney Garden shop near the Peabody Terrace apartments.

"It's a big site," he says.

Harvard President Neil L. Rudenstine hinted at a similar project during the Presidents' Welcome on pre-frosh weekend.

But in the meantime, the Mainstage remains a premiere theater space available to a select few on campus.

Davidson says that, for the moment, directors and producers should realize that the Mainstage isn't for everyone.

"I don't think any theatre space is inherently better than any other," Davidson says. "It all depends on the particular production and what you want to get out of it."

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